Laïsha and Kolyek
At last I raised my head. Simonos stood before me and raised outstretched arms to receive me. I was almost too drained to rise. But I did, we hugged, and he kissed my cheeks. Behind him stood Euthymios. I hugged him, too. I was afraid to look at Laïsha, but finally I glanced at the bed. No Laïsha. She had moved to stand behind Euthymios. She was leaning on Simonos and he on her.
The brothers left the house while Laïsha and I stood facing each other. We were alone, and I was afraid. And then we were hugging. I don’t know how long we carried on. First we stood and clutched and just sobbed at each other, and then we sat upon the bench. When at last I could form the words I asked Laïsha to tell me how anyone could ever again trust hands to heal that had done the terrible things mine had done.
Her offense was the worse, she insisted, for she had actually attempted to kill someone. Now she was a fugitive. I had made no attempt to kill, yet two had died in my presence within the past few weeks. I merely harbored a secret concerning their fates, and that secret, which was now entrusted to these three friends, protected me from the wrath of others, wrath I did not deserve.
My greater regret, I told her, leaning my forehead against hers, was that I had lied.
“You feared me as I did you,” Laïsha discerned. “You simply talked too much, and in order to talk you had to lie.”
“I’ll never lie to you again,” I promised. “Never.”
“You talk too much,” Laïsha repeated.
Without our noticing, Simonos returned to stand behind us. He interrupted our meditations. “My feet hurt, Friend Physician. Can you tend them now?”
And Laïsha added: “My side hurts, too, Kolyek. Can you make me a flummery?”
I busied myself with these cares and setting some roots to simmer on the stove with a fresh fowl. After that, I pulled some hides from the loft and from the walls and laid them about on the floor, the better to provide warmth for healing feet. When at last I grasped the time of day, it was late afternoon. All conversation has ceased for a time, and I, with head bowed and saying as little as was necessary, was tending to my sufferers.
At last Euthymios approached me. “How do you feel?”
“Like a hollow reed. There’s nothing left inside.”
“Nothing?” Euthymios asked.
“No peace? No freedom?”
I tried to feel inside the empty straw that walked around the house at this hour dispensing medical care. There was no emotion there. I told him so.
“But Kolyek, you aren’t finished.”
“Oh, yes I am!” I said surely.
“No,” Euthymios repeated, gently. “Kolyek, you have cleansed yourself of the sin. And I for one find you beyond reproach, because you acted out of fear when things went badly that were beyond your control. But now that those things that filled you with fear are gone, you are empty.”
“I’ve told you so.”
“Then what shall you put inside to replace it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you believe that I love you?”
I stared at him. Somehow I knew what he meant. I shrugged.
“You are a good person, Kolyek, full of hope and caring. Do you believe that I can love that in you?”
“Then if I, who am a sinner, Kolyek, can love you, think how much more God loves you, he who made you and seeks you to be his own. For his love is perfect, where mine is but the love of an imperfect man.”
“This room is filled with love for you, Kolyek. Will you claim it?”
I looked around. Simonos soaked his feet in a bowl I had prepared for him. “‘He who refreshes others will himself be refreshed,’” said the little monk.
Laïsha had just changed her clothes behind her curtain and now sat on the edge of the bed combing her hair with the pigskin brush. I had always understood that women never tend to their appearance in the presence of men, and yet Laïsha had done so openly before me, and now before these others also. (I could only guess, but over the course of time such demonstrations before a man might be misconstrued as attempts to tantalize him, and thus a custom was born.) Slaves were usually denied the opportunities to fuss over themselves at all. Yet Laïsha, a woman and recently a slave, was obviously accustomed to minding her image, probably because of her station as servant to the merchant’s wife.
She already knew that I spurned many social conventions, and so she would readily ignore such prohibitions around me, trusting in her wretched condition to confute any notion that she wished to be provocative. Yet now she ignored the same rules of behavior before the other two men in the house, and they seemed to disregard her display as well. In any event, I would have said nothing that would repress her. She was free to do as she pleased in my home.
The two in my care had been listening to Euthymios and me, and now they looked at me with silent smiles. Laïsha’s terrible nausea of the previous days had all but left her, and the relief showed.
“I can feel the love,” I acknowledged slowly, trying not to let it in too quickly, for, as with a stomach empty and starving, I feared that it would hurt if I accepted too quickly anything to fill my void.
“Do you love me?” Euthymios pressed further.
“I have to understand it.”
“Don’t try too hard to understand it, Kolyek, for love is a gift from God freely given to those who claim it. And if you are loved, don’t you, in return, want to love him who loves you — as you did Sadruk, who loved you?”
“I’d want to,” I agreed.
“Would it be easier if you started with Laïsha?”
I stared at her.
“When you love somebody, you’d do anything for him.” Euthymios paused. “Or for her.” He seemed to be narrating my thoughts at this point. “You hurt when she hurts, you worry when you’re apart, you want to bring her gifts and to wait upon her. You listen for her bidding and eagerly do anything she asks. You feel as though you can’t do enough for her, and, when she thanks you, you protest that what you’ve already done is far too little.” He paused once more. “Isn’t this the way you’ve come to feel about Laïsha?”
She still watched me, smiling that smile of total acceptance.
“Yes,” I said softly, turning back to look at Euthymios’s feet. “That’s the way I feel about her.”
“Have you told her as much?”
“Do you want to tell her?”
“Before you do, think of it not as the love of a man for a woman, but as the love of one person for another person. That may make it easier.” He paused. “Now, if you wish, tell her.”
I tried to look at Laïsha, and at last my eyes settled on her hands, which now rested on her knees. That wasn’t looking high enough, though, I realized. I had already laid my soul out like a doormat. Nobody had stepped on it. Now I was about to lift it and let everyone see underneath. What did it hide? Nothing. Absolutely nothing was left. My eyes climbed her chest and paused at her pale neck, then over her chin, which I now saw was slightly askew. I paused again at her front teeth, the one a little shorter than the other. They were plainly in view because she was smiling. I found her eyes, looking large and dark against her pallid but clean face. Her cheeks were tense, and as our eyes met she bit her lip, which pulled her jaw aside even more.
I took a step in her direction, pulled the stool before her, and I said, quietly: “I love you, Laïsha-Marhya.” As one person to another? I asked inside myself. Or man-to-woman? It wasn’t clear to me then, but little did it matter, for I had simply come to love her, and whether it were romantic or Godly love was something I could sort out later.
“I love you, Kolyek,” she said quietly.
“Why do you love her, Kolyek?” Euthymios asked.
I didn’t have to think about this one. “Because she needed me. She was so vulnerable, and she accepted my care-giving.” I could have gone on, but Euthymios was on a quest.
“And why do you love him, Laïsha?”
She spoke slowly, quietly, but with assurance. “Because he cared for me without seeming inconvenienced by it, without seeking anything in return. At first I couldn’t have loved him, because I was suspicious. But now I see that even his elaborate tales were constructed to protect me.”
“So you love him, man-to-man, can we say?”
“Yes.” Laïsha smiled.
“Do you accept her love, Kolyek? It is freely given.”
“Now are you empty inside?”
“No.” I think I smiled a little here.
“Good. Let us go on. So you came to love her because she needed you, as a helpless child needs a mother, and she loves you because you would do anything for her. Now, do you accept my love, Kolyek?”
“Why do I love you?” Maybe Euthymios knew, but I didn’t.
“Because I needed you?” I suggested.
“That’s part of it, but enough for the moment. Do you love me?”
“Because… I see in you the love of God.”
“Kolyek! Not so fast! But you thrill me to say that! So if I love you because you needed me, and you are returning my love because I cared for you without reservation, then why does God love you?”
“We need him.”
“As a chick needs the hen, as a child needs its mother. And the mother can’t help but respond to that need. The mother loves the child whom she created and who needs her. She feels great tenderness for the child. Such tenderness and hope God feels for you. He offers you his love, and he has placed it in you at birth so that you can offer it back as well. When you and God reach out to one another in love it becomes a bond between you, just as the love you share with a friend is a bond. We all have the capacity to love, for God has placed that ability into each and every human being, even the feeble-minded. But witness how easily it becomes overshadowed by our fears and our selfishness. Still, God reaches out, and when suddenly you realize that you’re loved, you want to return that love, and so you do anything you think will please the one who loves you.”
Euthymios continued: “And that explains the love I have for God. I know I’m loved by him whose love is the highest to be prized. And knowing that I’m loved by him overwhelms me. I can’t do enough for my Father, who is in paradise.” He paused. “Are you still empty inside?”
“Now, what about peace?”
“I have opened myself to your love,” I assured Euthymios.
“Have you opened yourself to God’s love?”
“Not really, I guess.”
“Will you try to, in good time?”
“Then in a few days we’ll discuss peace.”
“I love to watch Euthymios work,” Simonos told Laïsha, as if his brother weren’t present to hear the remark.
“Back to one thing,” Euthymios directed. “You love Laïsha because she needs you. Did you also love Davnoy?”
“No,” I answered honestly.
“Because he didn’t need you?”
“I can’t say why. He was nobody to me.”
“That’s fair. But, do you know that God loved him? He needed God, didn’t he? For if he had loved God, he would have led a different life and might be alive today. Knowing that God loved him too, we have a job to do. Tomorrow we shall conduct a memorial ceremony to commend his soul to God’s mercy. We must do the same for Sadruk. After that, Friend Kolyek, we shall see about peace.”
I expected that I would now feel uncomfortable around Laïsha. But somehow it came naturally to both of us to behave toward one another with solicitous formality. It was as if I desired nothing else in life but to attend her needs, and she wanted to assist me in everything and at the same time to assure me that my ministrations were having the utmost effect.
On this evening, while the brothers were on one of their frequent walks outside to test Simonos’s feet, I spent a brief time studying and tending to Laïsha’s chest wound. First I washed it carefully to remove flaked skin and crusted body fluids which still oozed from it. I wanted her to understand why I did certain things to her, since it was her body. I told her some of what I know about blood — that it runs freely throughout the body and bathes the organs, that it dries when it is exposed to air, just as root crops dry in the air, that blood runs thicker if a person consumes large quantities of salt or spices and that it runs thinner when someone is warmed or eats warm food. I told her that the heart appears to be the organ where blood is made and then is pumped to all the parts of the body, where it is turned into meat and flesh.
I finished washing her wound and dried it with a clean rag. Then I pressed her chest firmly with my fingers, beginning in a wide circle around the injury and working toward the center. For the first time, as I was doing this maneuver, she giggled. I tried it again, and again she giggled. Then we giggled together and embraced spontaneously. There was an upsurge of affection between us as we hugged, (and I enjoyed a new consciousness of desire as my hands pressed her bare back in the embrace). I think much of our ease with one another was rooted in the relief that we both felt for having unmasked and exposed ourselves so. We could be friends now, although I could not comprehend how she could forgive both the grave misdeeds I had done as well as the lying.
Yet I did not doubt her forgiveness. I only marveled at it. Soon, as I continued to feel her ribs, pressing closer and closer to the visible wound, I touched a point that gave her pain. When first she winced I was stricken with panic, that I had harmed her, or so she would perceive.
But no. “It’s all right,” She assured me. “If you need to know, it does hurt there.” Then she laughed.
I continued my probing until I had delineated the area that I thought was still undergoing healing. As I proceeded I explained my method to Laïsha. I wanted to fix in my mind where she now felt pain so that I could tell, when I would once again examine her in the ensuing days and weeks, how her healing was progressing. I knew already that I had pressed firmly and safely on places where my touch had previously caused her to recoil in agony. But I hadn’t been observant before, and couldn’t gauge her progress as I now wished to do. To help my examinations to follow, I delineated the painful zone by drawing a rough circle onto her chest using soot that I kept in a jar. The mark would remain for a few days and then I would repeat the test.
At last I lightly touched the wide, raised triangle of new pink and red skin that covered the wound on her right flank. To my surprise she didn’t feel a light touch at all. For comparison I touched her left side in the same place and she wriggled away laughing. What tickled her there she felt not at all on the right side. I didn’t dare to press deeply against the new skin, for I knew that pressure applied there would hurt, and I didn’t trust the skin to be strong against the point of a finger.
“Do you care to try a deep breath?” I asked her.
“Often I have tried. But it will not come. I’m sorry.”
At last my examination was done and I found myself as before staring boldly at her chest, bared but for the band of light cloth that covered her breasts. I looked up to her face, and she gave me a look of utter trust. I wanted to stare for minutes longer — her breasts were much more loosely wrapped than originally, and their curves commanded my eyes. I did look back down at them, but she clenched her elbows and drew her forearms over her chest. Her expression implored me to give her credit for a little modesty. So I did something that took me completely by surprise: I bent close to her wound and kissed the center of it. Immediately I closed and fastened the upper part of her garment. In my soul I knew that the kiss was a gesture of caring, even if medically useless. I wanted so dearly to see her healed. As we sat facing each other her look went from astonishment to love to a blush and then to practicality as she set about rearranging our sleeping situation.
The brothers returned, moved their things to my loft, and prepared their beds there. I took the floor beneath Laïsha’s bed, which still stood next to the stove.